A Giant Navahopi Sipapu Awaits Its Time at the Base of Glen Canyon Dam
Disappearance and Reemergence:
The historical and scientific consensus is that the last pre-Puebloan Indians (Anasazi) migrated away from the Four Corners around 1300 CE. Later, they “reemerged” as the Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo tribes. The Hopi Creation Myth centers on the “sipapu”, a hole in the earth from which all of creation arose. Every ancient ceremonial kiva in the Four Corners includes a symbolic sipapu in its floor.
The great kivas provided communal warmth and shelter to the pre-Puebloan. Since an earthquake could collapse their roof beams, kivas also carried with them the risk of sudden death. After a swarm of catastrophic earthquakes around 1250 CE, the pre-Puebloan survivors reemerged from the metaphorical sipapu of their collapsed kivas, only then to leave the land that had long sustained them.
In order to escape the ongoing desertification of their homelands on the Colorado Plateau, many of the lost tribes traveled downriver from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. To this day, many of caches of their food and tools remain hidden in alcoves high among those canyons. As the climate dried, timber became scarce, crops failed and game animals retreated to well-watered places like Glen Canyon. Using the river as a pathway, they headed south toward new lands and new lives.
In the wilds of Glen Canyon, they found sustenance for their long trek. Nuts, berries and small game were abundant along the shoreline. Those who understood the weather cycle travelled south in summer or fall, often wintering-over in the lower, warmer reaches of the canyon. Still, the canyon was no place to dally. With the warmth of spring would come annual flooding along the Colorado River.
If the pre-Puebloan episode of climate change was similar to our own, enormous spring floods may have swept the canyon. From wall to wall, the flood would roar, erasing sandbars and banks that had so recently provided shelter for their journey. If the people upstream waited too long, their own supplies of food might be exhausted. If they travelled the river too soon, they risked an unexpected cleansing in the mighty flood.
In its February 1961 issue, Arizona Highways Magazine devoted the inside cover to a photograph of Glen Canyon Dam, then in its early stages of construction. Many of us grew up thinking that the 710 ft. (220 m) high arch of Glen Canyon Dam had always been there. Seeing photos of dam construction in the early 1960s, reminds us how recently the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation placed a plug of concrete and steel into that enormous gap.
It was then, still several years before the filling of Lake Powell, that Edward Abbey and a few brave or foolhardy souls rafted down the Colorado River. Less than one hundred years after its discovery by the expedition of Major John Wesley Powell, Abbey and his inveterate river runners were among the last humans to see Glen Canyon as it always was. In 1869, Powell wrote, “...we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features - carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.” For his part, Edward Abbey wrote almost one hundred years later, “In fact I saw only a part of (Glen Canyon) but enough to realize that here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise.”
Edward Abbey and many others were incensed that the U.S. Congress funded the building of Glen Canyon Dam. In his 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey waxed rhapsodic on the possibility of toppling the dam, thus releasing the waters that covered all traces of Abbey’s “Eden in the Desert”. In 1981, Abbey and the group known as Earth First converged on the dam. While Abbey spoke to a small group gathered nearby, members of Earth First unfurled a banner designed to look like a huge crack on the face of Glen Canyon Dam. Throughout the protest, there was no violence, sabotage or destruction of property. The symbolic cracking of the dam, it seemed, was protest enough.
Even those who accept the human causes of climate change tend to see it as a recent phenomenon. Outsized events, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 or Superstorm Sandy in 2011 are not enough to convince many that humans play a role in our own meteorological environment. In the spring of 1983, two years after the symbolic cracking of the dam, Edward Abbey and his fellow travelers almost saw their wish come true. Heavy winter snows across the Colorado Plateau, followed by drenching rains and unseasonably warm temperatures brought a flood of unexpected proportions into Lake Powell.
The Bureau of Reclamation was unprepared for the onslaught of water. By July of 1983, Lake Powell reached its highest recorded elevation. In order to increase the carrying capacity of the lake, engineers hastily erected plywood barricades atop the dam. A month earlier, dam operators had opened the left diversion tunnel, sending 10,000 cubic feet per second (280 m3/s), just 7.2% of capacity, down the tunnel into the river below. Meanwhile over 120,000 cubic feet per second (3,400 m3/s) was pouring into the upper reaches of the reservoir.
In this lopsided scenario, something had to give. For a few weeks, it appeared that erosion in the spillway tunnels might cause catastrophic failure of the system. Cavitation-caused erosion was backtracking from the tunnel outlets. If erosion had loosened the enormous concrete plugs that held back lake water from the diversion tunnels (used during initial construction), the dam could have failed. Although the dam rumbled ominously while the spillways were in operation, luck alone saved the day. Just as options were running out, inflow from the upper Colorado River began to slow, allowing the reservoir to subside. Perhaps warm weather caused sufficient evaporation from the lake to save the dam from destruction.
While the “outlet works” received emergency repairs, the ancient power of the river had reemerged from beneath placid Lake Powell. In deference to the facts of global warming, dam operators never allowed Lake Powell to approach full capacity (3708 ft. elevation) again. Since 1983, they have kept lake levels low enough (3640 ft. max. elevation) to capture a flood at least that large. To this day, the “bathtub ring of 1983” stands as a high water mark on the walls of Glen Canyon. Had the public known that Glen Canyon Dam would never live up to its original design criteria, would the dam have received initial approval?
Hoover Dam, built into hard granite at the Black Canyon of the Colorado River many miles downstream will probably outlast Glen Canyon Dam by centuries. Wedged as it is into the soft sandstone walls of Lower Glen Canyon, the Glen Canyon Dam may have received irreparable damage during the vibrational drubbing it took in 1983. Those who controlled the dam during the harrowing days of summer 1983 are retired now, or dead. Despite several engineering surveys intended to allay public fears about permanent damage, we must wait for time to tell.
In what we now call the Four Corner States, it is likely that a swarm of earthquakes marked the end of the pre-Puebloan era. With their kivas in ruins, the ancients could not live through the winter without communal shelter and warmth. With the last of their timber beams burned for warmth, they soon departed for warmer climes. Just as likely, it will be a series of earthquakes near Page, Arizona that will release the plugs from the diversion tunnels beneath Glen Canyon Dam. When one of those plugs pops into the Colorado River like a cork from a Champagne bottle, the scouring effects of the water will bring Glen Canyon, the “Eden in the Desert” back to the surface of the Earth, where it belongs.
Today the Navajo Nation borders Lake Powell and the Colorado River along its northern and western reaches. Coal from Black Mesa, to the north fuels the Navajo Generating Plant, which is visible from Lake Powell. Several centuries after disappearance of the pre-Puebloan culture, Indians from current day Western Canada repopulated the Colorado Plateau. Centuries later, those Dine' or Naabeeho people became known as the Navajo. In his 1975 book, “My Heart Soars”, Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada said this:
“Of all the teachings we receive,
this one is the most important:
Nothing belongs to you
of what there is,
of what you take,
you must share.”
In his lament for the hunting and gathering days of his youth, Chief Dan George summed up all that had been lost:
can I give you a handful of berries as a gift,
are the roots I dig used as medicine,
Can I sing a song to please the salmon,
does the pipe I smoke make others sit with me in friendship.
As we focus on the 1961 image of Glen Canyon, without the dam, perhaps we can decommission it before it blows its concrete plugs. Otherwise, it behooves us to prepare now for the opening of a grand sipapu there, in Glen Canyon, at a future date uncertain.